Away We Go. The Hangover. Up in the Air. Jennifer's Body. Whip It. Gentlemen Broncos. Fantastic Mr. Fox. What do these 2009 films have in common? Randall Poster.
Poster, for folks who don't pore over the below-the-line folks who are as much if not more responsible for the artistry that goes into the films we watch and love, is a music supervisor. The producer and developer of the musical backdrops, if not backbones, of countless films over the past two decades, he's responsible for pairing some of the movies' most indelible images with its most unforgettable songs, from Kids to Rushmore to School of Rock to virtually any scene in the above films in which music is played. He's worked with Wes Anderson and Todd Haynes; Harmony Korine and Martin Scorsese; Todd Phillips and David Fincher.
Two of Poster's most acclaimed films from last year arrive on DVD and Blu-ray this month: Up in the Air debuted March 9, while Fantastic Mr. Fox is being released March 23. Cinematical was lucky enough to speak to Poster earlier this year when the native New Yorker was visiting Los Angeles for work. In addition to talking about his collaborations with directors Jason Reitman and Wes Anderson on these two particular projects, Poster discussed the process of cultivating long-term relationships with various filmmakers, and reflected upon the work – and the way of working - that he's found most satisfying during the course of his accomplished and remarkably eclectic career.
Cinematical: Just to get started, how did you get started as a music supervisor and what's involved in it as a job?
Randall Poster: I came to doing it in an organic way. I graduated from college and I didn't really have any clear direction, really. Subsequently, a friend and I wrote a script that was based around a college radio station that reflected some of our experiences. People were interested in it and we developed it at the Sundance Institute and made this movie [A Matter of Degrees] in 1990. It was a really long, hard road to completion, and I really enjoyed it, and there was a very big musical component; we recorded songs and made a record, and [through that process] I sort of found out I really wanted to work with great film directors. This was sort of an area where I was just going to try to become an expert and focused in. That sort of started things out and I began to work with some of my peers who were making movies, and one movie led to another and it just sort of it became the focal point and a career doing it was born. So it was a pretty organic evolution.
Cinematical: Is most of it dealing with licensing at this point?
Poster: Well, it just depends. Every film has different needs and every filmmaker has a different mode of working. I generally say that my role is to help the director establish a musical direction and then to help enable it, really. So a lot of times when there's a particular prescription by virtue of it being a film set in a period or there being a film where there's a lot of on-camera performance or, say, a complete conceptual performance where like the films I've done with Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine or I'm Not There, you're really using music on a whole different level. The fact that it's actors performing, music is really the essence of the story.
Cinematical: For something like Velvet Goldmine, are you recruiting the performers?
Poster: Yeah. I mean, I sometimes describe the job as being the producer of the music for the movie, so you have to cast the vocal parts or the singing parts as a part of the essential making of the movie. Even really in terms of where a responsibility that I've taken on in a lot of movies that I've worked on is that when there's a big band in a movie, it's really important to me to cast musicians in those roles, and to sort of play the part of casting director when necessary to make sure that even the background musicians look right and know what they're doing to sell the music with authority.
Cinematical: How much variety is there in the level of guidance or assistance that you will provide?
Poster: It all depends. I'm lucky enough that there are maybe five or ten directors who I have really ongoing relationships with – obviously Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Todd Phillips, Sam Mendes, Richard Linklater – where I think there is a lot of correspondence in between movies that sort of helps us preconceive as much as possible, and as much as necessary, as the process really just begins. I started on Rushmore when it was two sentences in a little notebook. Generally it's to the benefit of the project, and sometimes in some situations where there's a new director to work with, [but] sometimes people struggle to sort of sort through the musical notion and that's often a time where I get asked to come in and just try to help maybe see the forest for the trees, or see a certain musical pattern that maybe by virtue of the fact that everybody's been so close to the process that they just really can't see what's emerging. I always just try to say, where the logic, where's the rhythm, where's the identity of the music?
Cinematical: For filmmakers like Wes Anderson, are these people who have a pretty clear idea what they want and you flesh it out, or do you help design those musical throughlines? Fantastic Mr. Fox, for example, uses Beach Boys music several times.
Poster: For me, what I like best about what I do is that these directors are some of the most insightful, talented, brilliant people that you could spend time with, so it's a privilege to collaborate with them on every and any level. And in these situations, sometimes my job is to be the person the director can talk to about music - I'm the correspondent and the intimate. I would say with Wes, we've had movies [like] with Royal Tenenbaums, where we had it pretty well plotted musically when we entered it. I would say with The Life Aquatic, we had certain ideas, and then certain ideas, we couldn't preconceive them, and when we fleshed out more of an idea, particularly how we used the David Bowie songs, which was an idea that we certainly didn't go into with as sweeping a notion of how we were going to use it. But as we got this music from Seu Jorge, we had more ambition by virtue of what we were able to get. [On] Darjeeling Limited, we had a notion that we wanted to use film music from other Indian movies, Satyajit Ray films, and films that Satyajit Ray had composed the music for.
But with Fantastic Mr. Fox we really did a lot of research and really gathered a lot of music trying to figure it out. Maybe that was by virtue of the fact that an animated movie takes much, much longer to make. Over the course of the movie, that became clear to us, but we really didn't go into it with much of a preconception; it kind of evolved. We really looked at a lot of different kinds of music for the film.
Cinematical: What starts the process for you? Do you make a bunch of CDs?
Poster: Yeah. I just start to gather ideas and pursue certain directions, and if you get any kind of hint or clue, just to really, I don't want to say beat it to death, but really push it as far as I can as far as finding the roots of it, what's related to it, in terms of figuring out exactly what the filmmaker is responding to. Era, tempo, lyric – I try to pursue any and every connection. And then I work a lot on period movies, so a lot of times that's where you begin; I don't know every song that's ever been recorded, and so whether especially if you're, say, working on The Aviator, which was set in the '20s, '30s and '40s, a lot of research really had to go into some eras more than others, but I really had to go through a process of discovery.
Interestingly enough, Scorsese executive produced and directed the pilot of this new series for HBO called Boardwalk Empire which begins at the first day of prohibition, and that's an era, the music of 1920 – [which] is really a very unique and undervalued period of music. What's been fun is we've been needing music where it was playing say in nickelodeons or in movies because there was still the era of silent movies, so we had certain needs for music that would have been playing at the nickelodeons and there are no recordings of it. So we have archivists that we access, and we actually got the sheet music and we really don't even know what it sounds like until we get musicians into a room and play it. So it's kind of like musical archaeology, and that's very exciting and really interesting - and again, it helps you connect the dots before and after.
Cinematical: Is there one aspect of the physical production that helps you the most?
Poster: The script is obviously the bones of the undertaking, but you can use music for a point or a counterpoint; sometimes you want it to play straight along, and sometimes you want it to be a contrast to something. Sometimes you want it to sort of help pace a movie. So it's a vital ingredient that you can use to make something both salty and sweet.
Cinematical: Do you find that people tend to ask you to provide certain kinds of soundtracks repeatedly because of what they see as your success with specific films or kinds of music?
Poster: I don't think so. I mean, I'm always intrigued to work with young film directors, and I try to balance my schedule where I have room for things to work on with an aspiring filmmaker with a really left-of-center, do-it-yourself kind of project. But I don't know that I've really been grossly tattooed with my past work; I mean, a lot of young filmmakers respond to Wes' work, and I think that there have been movies where people have said try to capture the spirit of his musicality. [But] oftentimes the movies can't really carry it or it's not right, and I tend to think those movies are movies where people just want to kind of use music from the British Invasion, and I guess I'm sort of less interested in those kinds of movies.
Cinematical: Given your pedigree as this 'archaeologist' of older music, is it easy to find new music that stimulates you or you think works musically or emotionally in the same way?
Poster: I work very had at it to keep current. I'll also use my skills as an archivist to shore myself up in areas. But I work very hard to keep on top of what's going on, and I'm excited by new music, so it's a treat but you definitely have to put the time in and ask people what they're listening to. And as you get older, there's mainstream culture and there's counterculture, and it was the voice of the counterculture that I always was intrigued by, and it still intrigues me. So as I've gotten older I'm still not the person who says, "turn the music down." I'm still, "play the music loud!"
Cinematical: Do you feel like you're ever limited by the musical palette of the filmmaker or that of the audience? Nick Drake, for example, is a great performer whose music has really enhanced a number of films, but it's interesting that filmmakers would rather re-use his body of work instead of finding someone new.
Poster: If you say take the movie Away We Go, that's a movie where we said is there a way to unify the musical element a little bit with a voice. We landed on Alexi Murdoch who I think in many ways is sort of a successor of Nick Drake, so there's one I think is a very clear example where we said let's try to see if rather than looking backwards, we can forage ahead and find something people have less of an association with that can be more original through the movie.
Cinematical: I loved the use of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings in Up in the Air, but that film also used Elliot Smith, who conjures associations with movies like Good Will Hunting. It seems like the presence of his song carries a certain tone or feeling.
Poster: Especially when you're working with people who are a generation behind you, who are younger than you, they don't necessarily bring the same associations to the music. So what I always have to remind myself, and this is why it's really fun to work with younger filmmakers, is that they're not necessarily fenced in by the same history that somebody else might, so it works because the creative source is making that connection. Jason [Reitman] makes that connection and it's valid, and it can be surprising, and that's oftentimes what you have to remind yourself of when you're working with very young filmmakers – sometimes you've learned a lesson where you think something can't work or doesn't work, and then five years go by and somebody else wants to try it. Where somebody shares an idea with you and you say "that's not going to work," I stop myself because somehow the adjusted time helps you break rules.
That's really interesting to me, and that's how I try and maintain a certain vitality. Because sometimes you see where something is going but you have to allow the filmmakers that you're working with the due process, and sometimes it does work out exactly how you thought and you say we should have just sidestepped that. But other times they need to have that experience; sometimes I can accelerate the time it takes to get from A to Z, but sometimes something happens where it does go differently than I might have preconceived and I find that very exciting. And that's when I think musical combinations can really work differently from one piece to the next, and as time goes on, different songs have a different charge at a different point in time. It happens a lot.
Cinematical: Do you have favorite songs or soundtracks that you worked on that you think came together especially well?
Poster: I generally have a strong affinity for the projects that I'm working on, so I don't think I would ever say which [ones] are my favorite children, really. But I would say probably the movies where I had to work the hardest on, I would say, are probably things that when I get a little bit of distance from, I'm most inspired by and prodded by. These movies that have the big musical elements, whether it's The Aviator or Todd Haynes' movies or Darjeeling Limited or something like School of Rock where we had a really unique musical on-camera element that we had to work with, I think those are the projects where I've had to go through a big journey to get from point A to point B, so I would say probably the things I worked hardest on were the things that I kind of look back at with a sense of accomplishment or relief.